Absolutism in Europe: From Authoritarian Monarchies to the Divine Right of Kings

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Absolutism in Europe: The Rise of Authoritarian Monarchies

Beginning in the late 15th century, European monarchs began consolidating power, gradually wresting it from traditional sources of authority like the nobility, the Church, and city-states. This trend, known as the rise of authoritarian monarchies, continued throughout the 16th century.

The 17th Century: The Zenith of Absolute Rule

The 17th century witnessed the culmination of this power shift, with monarchs reaching the pinnacle of their authority. This period marked the emergence of absolutism, a political system where the king embodied the ultimate source and wielder of all political power.

Philosophical Justifications for Absolute Power

Several prominent thinkers sought to legitimize the absolute power of kings:

  • Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet: The Divine Right of Kings
    Bossuet, a French bishop and theologian, argued that God, as the creator of the universe, held absolute power in the Kingdom of Heaven. Since humans were created in God's image, they should strive to emulate his system of governance. Bossuet believed that the king's authority came directly from God, thereby justifying the monarch's absolute rule.
  • Thomas Hobbes: Absolutism for the Social Good
    English philosopher Thomas Hobbes viewed absolutism as beneficial for society. He posited that through a social contract, citizens surrendered their individual power to the king in exchange for security and well-being. Hobbes argued that to effectively govern and ensure the welfare of all subjects, the king required absolute power, preventing societal fragmentation and self-interest.

Practical Means of Consolidating Power

Monarchs employed several strategies to strengthen their grip on power:

  • Improving Royal Treasuries
    By expanding and streamlining state administration, monarchs increased tax revenue, bolstering the royal coffers. Centralization of power in the king's court, with all decisions requiring royal approval, further consolidated control.
  • Marginalizing Parliaments
    As royal treasuries swelled, monarchs became less reliant on parliaments for funding, diminishing their influence and allowing kings to govern more autonomously.
  • Brute Force
    Enhanced royal finances enabled monarchs to maintain larger, more professional, and loyal armies. This military might served to quell dissent and crush any opposition to the concentration of power in the hands of the monarchy.

The French Paradigm: Louis XIV and the Height of Absolutism

Absolutism found particularly fertile ground in France, propelling the nation to become the dominant European power by the century's end. Despite initial resistance from both the nobility and parliament, Louis XIV's reign witnessed the culmination of this process, ushering in an era often cited as the epitome of absolute monarchy.

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